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New Hampshire City Council Wades into Net Neutrality Fray

City councilors are holding up the ideal of an open Internet facilitating a free exchange of thought.

(TNS) — Stepping into a charged national debate over Internet regulation, a Keene, N.H., city council committee Wednesday signaled its opposition to the federal government’s recent repeal of so-called net neutrality rules.

The council’s planning, licenses and development committee voted 3-1 in favor of having Mayor Kendall W. Lane communicate the city’s stance to New Hampshire’s congressional delegation. The matter will move to the full council for a final decision.

The Federal Communications Commission voted last month to scrap Obama-era regulations that prohibited Internet service providers from blocking, slowing or charging to prioritize some websites while allowing unconstricted access to others.

Proponents of the regulations argue they prevent Internet providers from favoring some content over others and tilting the playing field toward web services they have a financial stake in. Critics — including FCC Chairman Ajit Pai — contend the rules are overly broad, stifling innovation, consumer choice and investment into broadband infrastructure.

“The principle is that Internet service providers must treat data on the Internet the same,” at-large Councilor Randy L. Filiault said before the city panel Wednesday.

Filiault, along with Ward 3 Councilor Terry M. Clark, brought the net neutrality issue to the council in a draft resolution they submitted last month.

In presenting the measure to the planning committee — which neither councilor sits on — Filiault and Clark held up the ideal of an open Internet facilitating a free exchange of thought.

When it appeared, Clark said, “The Internet was a breath of fresh air, because it was a free medium where anybody could communicate with anybody else.” Allowing corporations to restrict that freedom, he said, is “un-American.”

In interviews earlier in the day, both councilors also cast the issue as an economic one, saying the new regulatory framework will give large conglomerates more power at the expense of small business.

But at-large Councilor George S. Hansel said Wednesday night he saw no reason for the City Council to venture into the net neutrality scuffle.

“It would be tough for anything that we had to say on this to have any sort of real impact,” he said. At this point, he said, action on the matter is up to federal lawmakers. “I doubt that they’re gonna have much of an interest in what we have to say on it.”

Hansel also expressed disagreement with Clark and Filiault on the substance of the issue. “Removing the net neutrality (rules) was really to reduce unnecessary regulations, which I think is a good goal,” he said.

Partisans on both sides, he continued, have blown the issue out of proportion, turning it into a “political football.” Service providers’ pledges to not meter web access, along with regulations that require transparency in their practices, should suffice, he said.

Hansel was the lone no vote on the committee motion. At-large Councilor Bartlomiej K. Sapeta, Ward 4 Councilor Margaret M. Rice and Ward 3 Councilor David C. Richards, the committee’s chairman, voted yes. Ward 5 Councilor Philip M. Jones was absent.

“We already have a situation in Keene where Internet providers are scarce and … can price their services quite high” because of limited competition, Sapeta said. The issue is not “black and white,” he said, but city representatives should let lawmakers know of their concern for the Internet’s health.

The one member of the public who spoke, David Crawford, opposed the proposal. “I think market demand is the best regulation,” he said.

The Federal Communications Commission first adopted rules prohibiting service providers from blocking or unreasonably discriminating against web content in 2010, according to a narrative included in the commission’s Dec. 14 order reversing net-neutrality provisions.

But after a federal appeals court struck down those rules in 2014, according to the order, the commission reclassified Internet providers as “common carriers” — like landline phone companies — rather than “information services,” allowing more stringent regulations. The commission voted to repeal those regulations and reverse the reclassification in its Dec. 14 order.

The action prompted multiple state attorneys general, led by Eric T. Schneiderman of New York, to announce they would sue in a bid to block the decision from taking effect.

Clark and Filiault’s initial proposal called for a resolution asking N.H. Attorney General Gordon MacDonald to join the suit. But around the time they submitted it to the council, MacDonald declined to do so, saying the regulations are a federal matter, the Associated Press reported.

At Wednesday’s committee meeting, after a suggestion from Lane, the proposal was changed to have the mayor petition New Hampshire’s federal delegation. Lane, who favors preserving net-neutrality rules, said that will have more effect in light of the attorney general’s decision.

The state’s U.S. senators and representatives, all Democrats, have said they would support legislation overturning the FCC ruling, according to the AP.

City councilors have occasionally waded into other national political debates in the past year, taking largely symbolic votes supporting the Paris climate accord and policies limiting cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.

Last summer, Clark and Filiault also proposed a resolution opposing N.H. Secretary of State Bill Gardner’s plan to release voter data to a controversial federal commission. Rather than moving forward with the resolution, Lane decided to send a letter to state officials expressing opposition.

Speaking after the meeting Wednesday, Rice, the lone new face elected to the City Council in November’s elections, said national issues have a place in council deliberations. “When it affects residents of Keene, that’s something that we should take a stand on.”

©2018 The Keene Sentinel (Keene, N.H.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.